1797 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. William Benwell

S. E. K., in Gentleman's Magazine 67 (January 1797) 3-4.



Jan. 6.

MR. URBAN,

I much wonder that no one of the numerous friends of the late lamented Mr. Benwell has paid a greater tribute of respect to his memory than what appeared in your Obituary, vol. LXVI. p. 797. A character so truly amiable and excellent deserves to be displayed in the brightest colours; nor is it with any idea of doing justice to his merits that I trouble you with this account of him, but in the hope of drawing from some more able pen a fuller and more perfect delineation of his genius and virtues.

Mr. Benwell was brought up under the care of the Rev. Dr. Valpy at Reading, who still conducts his school with so much credit to his numerous scholars. He entered Trinity College, Oxford, in the beginning of the year 1783, and soon distinguished himself as an excellent classical scholar, particularly for his Latin compositions both in prose and verse. These attainments led him to aspire to the public honours of the University, and his efforts were crowned with success; first, by gaining the Under-graduate prize in 1785 for Latin hexameters on "The Siege and pillage of Rome by Alaric," and then a Batchelor's, in the year 1787, by a very elegant essay on "The Superiority of the Moderns over the Ancients in Art and Science." Henceforward he was looked up to as one of the ornaments of the University; and, besides his literary accomplishments, he was equally esteemed and admired by his friends for an amiable sweetness and modesty of disposition, for maturity of judgment, and an exquisite purity of general taste.

Soon after taking his degree of A.B. he was ordained deacon by the present Bishop of Hereford, then Bishop of Oxford; and (there being yet no fellowship vacant for him on the foundation of his college) he retired to the curacy of Sunning in Berkshire. Here the same unassuming modesty of manners, and purity of character, gained him the love and esteem of his parish, and the general respect of the neighbourhood. But it is in his behaviour to the poor that his admirable character most shone forth. His kind and patient attention to their wants and infirmities, his assiduity in instructing and catechizing the children, together with his zeal in visiting the sick, and administering to them the comforts of religion, shewed his own strong sense of clerical duty, and marked him as a most conscientious and exemplary clergyman. His own sincere piety too gave weight to his instructions, which failed not "to turn many to righteousness," and left an impression, which, I dare say, is not yet effaced from the minds of his poor friends (as he used to call them) in that extensive parish.

In the year 1790 Mr. B. succeeded to a fellowship of Trinity-college; and on his return to Oxford he engaged in the tuition of pupils, and undertook the care of a new edition of the Memorabilia of Xenophon. In this work, from the multiplicity of his other engagements, his progress was much slower than the lovers of Greek literature could have wished; and, we believe, only about two-thirds of it were finished at the time of his death. But, from the specimens which the writer of this memoir has seen, there is a display of accuracy of verbal criticism and text-emendation, which rank him among the foremost of editors of the Classics. He also took upon himself the trouble of giving an entirely new Latin translation, which, for elegance of Latinity, is not inferior to any that ever accompanied a Greek author, that of the Cyropaedia of Hutchinson not excepted.

In the spring of the last year, Mr. B. was instituted to the living of Chilton, in Suffolk, on the presentation of Mr. Windham, the Secretary at War. This enabled him to accomplish his union with a most sensible and amiable woman, to whom he had been long attached with the purest love, and who was deserving of a man of such virtue and merit. Their marriage took place in June; and in September a fever, which he caught in his humane attention to a poor sick family at Milton, deprived the world of his valuable life, and left his widow inconsolable for so sudden a deprivation of all her hopes. The life of man is often called a breath — a vapour! And when we consider the circumstances of this happy union, there seems such a dash of all human hopes and prospects, as fully confirms the idea of the frail and perishable tenure of our mortal state. But "the virtuous soonest die;" and this good man is called away to receive those rewards which are laid up for spirits so pure and heavenly.

To review his general character: — As a scholar, Mr. Benwell was of the first rank, eminently literate as a classic and philologist, and of no less refined taste and skill in antiquarian research. He has indeed completed no work that may carry his name to posterity; yet there are many scattered compositions known to his friends (some of which, Mr. Urban, adorn your pages), marked with evident traits of genius and ability. His style, both in his Latin and English compositions, was chaste, easy, and correct, formed in the school of Cicero and Addison, or perhaps more nearly resembling the elegant simplicity of his favourite Xenophon. His critical taste was eminently just and pure; nor was it confined to literary productions, but equally extended to painting, prints, and every work of elegant art. His discourses for the pulpit were written and delivered in a strain of piety and sincerity, well adapted to move the affections of his poorer hearers, to whom he used more particularly to address himself; and both in manner and matter his preaching strongly called to mind the pious and amiable zeal of the good Bishop Wilson. With a mind thus highly improved, and well-directed, had it pleased Divine Providence to have granted him a longer term of years, he would no doubt have produced some work that would have produced some work that would have enriched the stores of learning, or promoted the cause of virtue and religion.

In stature Mr. Benwell was about the middle size, slender, and genteel in person, of mild and gentle deportment and manners, which, with the soft expression of his eyes and countenance, contributed to render him universally beloved.

His loss to his friends is irreparable, and by none of them is he more sincerely lamented than by the writer of this imperfect account. He knew Mr. Benwell soon after his entrance at the University, and always esteemed his friendship and acquaintance as one of the happiest circumstances of his life. This tribute of affection, therefore, he has wished to pay to the memory of him as a man of the most pure and virtuous character, of refined genius and taste, and of the strictest disposition and manners. [Greek characters].

S. E. K.